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Federal District Court Finds Federal Law Does Not Preempt State Medical Marijuana Law’s Prohibition Against Employment Discrimination

By Sara J. Robertson

On August 8, 2017, the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut held in Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co., LLC d/b/a Bride Brook Health & Rehab Ctr. that federal law does not preempt the Connecticut Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (PUMA). PUMA prohibits employers from firing or refusing to hire qualified applicants or employees who are legally prescribed medical marijuana, even following a positive drug test. This case of federal first impression may have wide-ranging implications for employers that conduct drug testing in states that have legalized medical marijuana and have laws that protect medical marijuana users from adverse employment decisions based solely on their use of medical marijuana. 

Plaintiff Katelin Noffsinger was prescribed a daily dose of Marinol (capsulated synthetic marijuana) to treat symptoms arising from post-traumatic stress disorder, which she took only at night. Bride Brook, a nursing home, extended an offer of employment to Noffsinger, contingent upon passage of a drug test. Noffsinger disclosed her Marinol prescription to Bride Brook, and, as anticipated, tested positive for marijuana metabolites. Thereafter, Bride Brook rescinded her job offer. Noffsinger filed a lawsuit against Bride Brook alleging a violation of PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision. 

Bride Brook moved to dismiss, and argued that PUMA is preempted by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) based on the theory of “obstacle preemption,” whereby state laws are preempted if they “stand as an obstacle to the objectives of Congress.” The court denied Bride Brook’s motion, and held that PUMA did not create an “actual conflict” with any of the three federal statutes. First, the CSA did not preempt PUMA because the CSA does not prohibit employers from hiring or employing individuals who use illegal drugs. Second, the ADA did not preempt PUMA because, while the ADA allows employers to prohibit the illegal use of drugs in the workplace, PUMA does not authorize individuals to use marijuana while at work, and the ADA does not address use of drugs outside of the workplace. Finally, the FDCA did not preempt PUMA because the FDCA does not regulate employment, but PUMA does.

The Noffsinger decision creates further complications for employers that conduct drug testing for marijuana, particularly in states that have enacted laws that protect medical marijuana patients from adverse employment actions based solely on their use of medical marijuana. While the Noffsinger decision is not binding on other courts, courts in other jurisdictions with similar medical marijuana statutes might follow its lead. Therefore, employers may wish to reevaluate policies that either automatically deny employment to, or require termination of, an employee following a positive drug test resulting from the employee’s use of prescribed medical marijuana.